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Peace Studies Professor Sa'ed Atshan '06 on Being Gay and Middle Eastern in Post-Orlando America

Sa'ed Ashtan '06

The Huffington Post: Gay and Middle Eastern in Post-Orlando America


It is moments like this that make me wish there was on off switch for feelings. But then I remember that not being numb is its own blessing. To LGBTQ friends and loved ones, let us hold on to each other ever more tightly, hold on to the struggle against homophobia, and hold the victims and their families in the Light.


I keep thinking of the families who just discovered that their loved one was/is LGBTQ, only after they have been killed, critically injured, or survived this horror. Gay clubs are sanctuaries for so many queer people, where familial homophobia and the homophobia of the public sphere so often make it dangerous for us to hold hands or to celebrate our existence openly. I can’t put into words the psychological effect of the violation of that safe space in such a grotesque way.

I’m fortunate to have a family who has been incredibly supportive and a mother, in particular, who after I came out to my parents, told me that the reason she cried was that she wished I had told her sooner, in order to be by my side during my journey of self-discovery. My heart aches for the mothers in Orlando who didn’t have the opportunity to learn about this part of their child’s existence and to demonstrate the unconditional love that they deserve.


It hasn’t even been 48 hours since the Orlando massacre and we’re expecting LGBTQ people, in the midst of mourning, to become authorities on the motivations of Omar Mateen, even after information about him is only trickling in. As LGBTQ people watch the right appropriate this tragedy for their political aims, we on the left are demanding a level of eloquence and over-intellectualization and political analysis from LGBTQ people that is not only premature but is its own form of violence.

I’m watching queer friends being shamed on social media for not mentioning that a disproportionate number of the victims are Latinx, or that Mateen worked for a security company and was part of the prison industrial-complex and allegedly admired the New York Police Department, or that he is said to have beat his ex-wife so that a history of toxic masculinity must be taken into account.

We are demanding references to the reports about him being bipolar and the need to account for mental illness, or that we should be cautioning against the rise in Islamophobia, or the need for gun control laws, or to decipher what it means that Mateen declared allegiance to ISIS and ISIS has praised this attack, or that his family immigrated from Afghanistan, a country that the U.S. has invaded.

We are expected to psychoanalyze Mateen’s father. We are also told to consider that Mateen was acting from a place of internalized homophobia given the latest reports about him frequenting the gay club. We expect queer people right now to share the academic lingo and to connect this to histories of empire and to use whatever other terms we think are appropriate for the narratives we want to project. Yes, it’s important to process this with one another, but not without first having the requisite details. We’re in shock, our tears are not yet dry, and we don’t even know the names of all the victims. Instead of rushing to the cerebral, which is perhaps a way to escape the pain, can we be given a moment to grieve? Can we first say their names?

Read the full column

Sa'ed Atshan is a visiting assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College. He graduated from Swarthmore with a B.A. in political science and Middle Eastern studies and holds an M.A. in social anthropology and a Ph.D. in anthropology and Middle Eastern studies from Harvard University, as well as an M.P.P. from the Harvard Kennedy School. Atshan has been awarded multiple awards and fellowships from the National Science Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, Social Science Research Council, and the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation, among others. In addition to his work on humanitarian politics and aid intervention, Atshan has worked with a range of organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Seeds of Peace International Camp, the Palestinian Negotiations Affairs Department, and Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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